What are the best and worst things about being a writer?
I really like that I don’t have to go to an office. I’m quite outgoing in my personal life, but I found it crippling [in terms of social anxiety] to be in an office setting. I don’t like the necessity of having to be a public-facing figure – which is going to sound unconvincing because I use social media a lot. But it feels quite a stressful thing to have to maintain.
Introducing our 10 best debut novelists of 2021
I t’s a tough time to be a debut novelist, with so many of the usual channels for promoting new writing suspended or curtailed. The Observer’s pick of this year’s first novels will be published in a country whose bookshops are closed, and whose literary festivals have been postponed or made virtual. It therefore feels particularly important to celebrate these books, to make sure that they receive the profile and plaudits they deserve.
This is the eighth year in which the New Review team has read through dozens of first novels, looking for books that leap out from the crowd, writers who speak with powerful, fresh voices. Our record is pretty good. Last year we were the first to champion Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, which went on to win a host of prizes, including the Booker. Stuart says now: “Publishing your debut novel fills you with excitement and a fair amount of anxiety. We live in a noisy world, and it can be challenging for new writers to make themselves heard above the din. To be recognised as one of the Observer’s best debuts changed everything.” Previous luminaries selected also include Sally Rooney, Jessie Burton, Gail Honeyman, Oyinkan Braithwaite and Sara Collins.
This year’s selection of debuts (from writers in the UK and Ireland) is a particularly rich and interesting mix. We have novels that engage with contemporary British life, with questions of race and identity prominent. There are books that seek to explore occluded histories and contested narratives. It’s a list featuring several poets who have turned to the novel as a way of exploring ideas in a more capacious form. Several of the authors reflect either specifically or obliquely on the coronavirus pandemic, while others explore issues of systemic prejudice and social justice. There are a number of short, intense books that can be read in a single sitting, while others attempt to reshape the form of the novel itself. As always, we’re astonished and delighted by the range and ambition of the writers in this list. We look forward to following their careers in the years and decades ahead.
‘When I told my family I had a novel coming out, one uncle asked if I’d had a ghost writer’
They say write what you know – and 37-year-old Paul Mendez had plenty of material to draw on for his first novel, Rainbow Milk. Like his protagonist, Jesse, Mendez was raised in the Black Country as a Jehovah’s Witness, and “disfellowshipped” by the group at 17. Like Jesse, Mendez moved to London and became a male escort and sex worker, part of a journey of self-discovery that forms the core of his beautifully assured book.
He spent several years transforming his experiences into fiction: “There were times when to write something directly autobiographical would have simply been to bleed my heart out on to the page,” he says. “There are things that happened to me in it, but the details are far different.”
Rainbow Milk will be published by Dialogue Books, a Hachette imprint founded in 2017 to publish under-represented voices, headed up by Sharmaine Lovegrove. Mendez had met her at a party in 2012, but it wasn’t until he read about Dialogue that he followed up: “I sent her a sprawling 300-page manuscript on her first day,” he laughs.
What made you want to be a writer?
I was raised studying the Bible with adults – and it’s the greatest book ever, right? So my literacy accelerated at a very young age. Books have just always been the thing; I’ve never been able to escape words.
When did you start writing?
I was always encouraged by my English teacher to write, but Witnesses don’t encourage any kind of creative application, so it was a real conflict. I quit an engineering degree in 2002 to write. My family isn’t at all literary and when I told them I had a novel coming out, one uncle asked if I’d had a ghost writer. They’re wonderful people – just very different. They’re still Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they think I’m stupid: I was taught the “truth” and decided to go against that. I’ve tried to give up on them, but I really can’t. They may give up on me after this book comes out – who knows?”
What do you think about the world of books and publishing in 2020?
I think it’s our great hope! Dialogue Books, Merky Books, Jacaranda Books – all of these imprints are now around, looking for people with different and very valid voices. We’re in a good place.
Have you been mentored or particularly encouraged by anyone?
It was a fantastic leap of faith on Sharmaine’s part to say “I believe in you, you can write – go away and do it.” I needed someone to do that.
What’s the best and worst thing about being a writer?
There’s two amazing things: being part of a community of brilliant people, and always having the ability to put your thoughts into words. Therapy is great – but it’s also great to be able to open your laptop and talk to yourself. The worst thing? So far, nothing!
Give it to trusted friends to read
Agents are totally anal about it and most people just don’t bother getting it right. The wrong presentation, basically, puts an agent in a negative frame of mind before they’ve even started reading. Below is the advice that my agent sent me, after I sent her the first three chapters:
Once you’ve got your immaculately presented, completed manuscript, go out and buy a book called the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. This is an industry bible and contains comprehensive listings of every agent in the UK and US. Don’t send your work direct to publishers (unless you know someone there) as they don’t even have the time to read them these days.
There is a bit under each agent which tells you what sort of work they handle – be careful to choose only agents who handle the sort of work you’re sending them, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time. Send them the first three chapters and a nice friendly covering letter, telling them a bit about yourself and what inspired you to write. Don’t do a hard sell or try and tell the agent that you’re going to be a bestseller or the next John Grisham. This goes down very badly. If your work is good then they are skilled enough to know this within a few pages. If you’re attractive, it wouldn’t do any harm to send a photo as well. (But just one small one – don’t overdo it!)
For a more in-depth view of the publishing world and what you should be aware of before attempting to crack it, I’ve just read the best ever book about writing and being published. It’s written by an ex-editor and now agent and it’s essential reading. The downer is that it’s only available in the US and only in hardback, so it’s a bit pricey, but if you can afford it I really would recommend that you get yourself a copy. It’s called The Forest for the Trees – An Editor’s Advice to Writers and it’s published by Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin Putnam).
Accepted applicants will be paid $.50/word for pieces up to 2,000 words and will also be awarded an additional stipend for expenses. Because this program is intended for emerging writers, preference will be given, but not limited, to applicants under the age of thirty. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and working-class writers are especially encouraged to apply.
Click here to register to attend any of the events, both in-person or virtual.
Readings will begin at 7:30 pm in the Roschel Performing Arts Center.
Or join by phone:
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Webinar ID: 993 1007 5461
Or join by phone:
Dial(for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location):
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Webinar ID: 993 4898 9883
Craft Talks will begin at the times listed below and will be held in the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House
Closing events will be held in the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House
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Meeting ID: 984 6115 5817
7 New and Forthcoming Books by Writers Over 60
Jan 18, 2022
Time passes stunningly; perhaps never more so than in the last two years of the breakneck movement in global events, as well as the unending, stop-start pace of our collective anxiety and fear. Still even in normal years, you might wake up one day and find yourself past the age requirements for certain clubs, awards and/or lists. Maybe it’s 26 or 31. Perhaps it’s 46. Or 70. The literary world, much like the broader one, is obsessed with youth and genius, but everyone (if lucky) grows up (and arguably, writes way more textured books than they ever could at say, 22).
As someone who is deeply suspicious of peaking early and chronological age mandates, I was thrilled to discover these fully grown-up writers with thoughtful, diverse books out in early 2022. Their subjects are both fiction and nonfiction, and include outstanding women from other eras living well outside the society’s prescribed lines, difficult historical moments (Australia’s aboriginal family separation policy and World War II), and contemporary senior lives in Philadelphia and Covid-hit New York. Collectively, they’ve had careers in the literary world and out of it, some only got their literary starts well over the age of 30, and two are writing luminously in their eight and ninth decades! Age seems rather irrelevant and “it’s too late” might just be a fictional construct.
The Great Mrs Elias: A Novel Based on a True Story by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Sculptor, poet, and novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud has had a career that is mind-blowingly productive for just one lifetime. One of the first Black female artists to show work at the Whitney and subsequently showing at the world’s great museums, Chase-Riboud entered the literary world with a collection of poetry edited by Toni Morrison, and proceeded to win multiple awards. Her 1979 best-selling, first novel Sally Hemings came at a time when the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Hemings was still officially unacknowledged.
Now 82-years-old, Chase-Riboud’s latest novel The Great Mrs. Elias is based on a true story of a Black businesswoman in early 1900s New York City, which feels so palpable and jumps off the novel’s pages. I am hoping that Chase-Riboud is working on a memoir of her own expansive, transatlantic, character-filled life.
Wildcat: The Untold Story of Pearl Hart, the Wild West’s Most Notorious Woman Bandit by John Boessenecker
A historian of the American West and in particular its criminal elements, John Boessenecker (68-years-old) narrates the story of Pearl Hart, who in 1899 robbed a stagecoach in Arizona, and became the most infamous woman in the country at the time. From her Tucson jail cell, she conducted interviews and crafted her image as “The Bandit Queen.” She smoked cigarettes, wrote poetry, knit, used morphine, and read books. In short, a total bad bitch of her time, when most women, with some exceptions, were rarely allowed outside the domestic sphere. In Wildcat, Boessenecker investigates the true stories behind the Hart myths, and offers a different portrait of the women of that era.
Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer
If you’re worrying about being too old (a trap, and a voluntary one!) for anything, least of all, writing, then take note that the now 91-year-old Hilma Wolitzer wrote her first story at 36 and published her first novel in her 40s. Since then she’s published a bookshelf of nine novels and one craft book. A self-proclaimed “late-blooming novelist,” Wolitzer also created a novelist—Meg Wolitzer.
This collection includes that very first published story—and a new one “The Great Escape” which has the pandemic as its main frame. In real life, Wolitzer recovered from the illness, but her husband did not. The story will probably crack your heart in multiple ways.
Our Gen by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
68-year-old Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s novels have charted Black Philadelphia lives from previous historical moments, but in her latest, she takes on the contemporary—and how to live now, beyond a certain age. Cynthia enters Our Gen (short for Sexagenarian), a retirement community where she becomes friends with two Black residents and an Indian woman. They hang out, smoke weed, dance and talk politics, as if they were back at their college dorms. McKinney-Whetstone takes on the coming of (older) age trope in a humorous fashion, and moves back and forth between different eras of the women’s lives. Figuring out how to grow up is apparently eternal.
The White Girl by Tony Birch
In the rural Australian town of The White Girl by Tony Birch, Odette Brown tries to save her light-skinned granddaughter from the government’s forced family separation policy. It’s the 1960s and the policy would continue for another decade—in this time, Aboriginal Australians are not yet “recognized” as citizens. One of Australia’s leading contemporary literary voices, Birch, who is 64 and of Koorie descent, portrays the harshness of the time and intense racism experienced by the family in understated prose. An absolute (and unsettling regardless if you are unfamiliar with the country’s shameful recent past or not) page-turner, Birch’s novel, his third, gets its American debut in March. It was published in Australia in 2019 and bestowed multiple awards; read this review by Indigenous novelist Claire G. Coleman for an idea of the novel’s resonance there.
[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015
The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.
Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.
Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.
Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.
Students will explore storytelling through movement. Understanding how characters, emotions, and relationships are expressed through movement helps students build richer worlds in their imagination and deeper bonds in the real world. During this workshop, students will explore the movements and messages in nature, popular culture, and nonverbal communication. At the end of two weeks, students will have both a written and performed experience to take back to their creative process.
My Advice To Young Writers
So many of you have been sending me emails asking me for writing tips. So I thought I would put some of my thoughts down here about writing and the writing business. This is what works for me. It might not work for everybody.
1. Getting Started
Before you begin to write your story or novel, write a detailed outline and character backgrounds first. So many unpublished first (or second or third or 44th) novels begin halfway through the book because the writer has spent the first 150 pages giving us the background story instead of starting with THE STORY. Know your characters inside and out, where they came from, where they want to go, so that when you begin writing the book, you already know how they will act/react to events in the story. I love outlines. I read somewhere that Stephen King said writers who like to write outlines wish they were writing masters theses instead of novels. For the longest time, I thought this was true. Now I think he was just exaggerating. You need an outline. Even just the barest outline so that you know the story’s beginning, middle and end. Sometimes, I don’t stick to my outline.
The story begins to take off in a different direction, so I chuck the outline. But when this happens, I write a new outline. Outlines are the blueprints of stories. It will also keep you working, since you will see how far along you need to go. In general I write 10-20 page outlines, with a paragraph for each chapter in the book, describing the action that will occur in that chapter.
2. Begin Writing and Don’t Stop
Now that I am a mother, I write on Monday to Wednesday from 10am – 3pm everyday at a writer’s office. On Thursdays I do revisions at home and on Fridays I spend time with my baby. When I’m on deadline, which means the book was DUE YESTERDAY, the schedule goes whacky, and I just work ALL THE TIME and try to see my family in between.
The three-day writing week usually results in a solid ten to twenty pages. The manic work that happens during deadline crunch can result in anywhere from twenty to fifty pages a day. This is when the novel really happens.
Before I had my baby, when I was not on deadline, sometimes I didn’t work at all. I went to the movies, I went shopping, I hung out with my friends, I tanned by the pool, I read a ton of magazines. But that only lasted for a week or two. Most of the time I’m banging it out. Which means I force myself to sit at my desk and write.
When I did not make a living as a writer, I wrote AT EVERY CHANCE I COULD GET. I was a computer consultant at a major bank, but I would say I spent six hours writing to the two hours I spent working on my computer programs. I also spent weekends writing.
3. Cliffhangers are Key
How do you write a page-turner? By making each chapter end with a cliffhanger. What’s a cliffhanger? A cliffhanger is when the action reaches a feverish pitch and then the chapter ends with the protagonist hanging on a limb or about to kiss the boy or about to open the secret safe—but not revealing what is inside. It has to keep people reading to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
I got schooled in crafting page-turning cliffhangers because I used to write a serial novel in GOTHAM magazine called “The Fortune Hunters”. My story appeared every month, and every month I would end it on a cliffhanger to keep readers interested in reading the next story, which they would have to wait a whole month for. Apparently, it worked. The serial novel was very successful, and I even sold it as an adult novel. But I have not had time to whip it into shape for publication, so we will all have to wait for that for now. (I even had to return the money!)
But writing THE FORTUNE HUNTERS taught me how to write cliffhangers. Also reading Michael Crichton novels. Those taught me about cliffhangers too. And of course, the best advice to any writer is to READ. You can’t be a writer without being a reader.
4. Always Say Yes To Everything
Making a living as a writer or an artist means that some years, you can make a lot of money, and some years are very lean. One of my producer friends in Hollywood said that whenever he feels like blowing a lot of cash, he looks up at the Hollywood Hills at all those half-built mansions and reminds himself that sometimes, one hit is all you can get, so don’t get too cocky. The people who started building those houses didn’t have enough money to finish building them. Yikes!
All through my writing career, I have taken EVERY assignment offered to me. In addition to big-name magazines, I have written for obscure websites, shopping catalogs, health and fitness magazines, free newsweeklies, blogs, anything and everything. I have written about my family, my sex life, my staggering credit card debt. I have endured humiliation and good-natured ribbing. I have survived to write about it. Did I want to dress up as a man and crash my husband’s bachelor party? YES! Did I want to try out every position in the karma sutra and write about it? YES! Did I want to go around New York and ask men to tell me the length of their bananas and see if they could get women to date them if they wore their inches on a t-shirt on their chest? Um…er…do I really have to..oh well..YES!
We are following UNC Greensboro’s COVID-19 protocols. Face coverings are optional. Hand sanitizer will be provided for each classroom. Campers are in large classrooms and we will practice social distancing as much as possible. We ask that staff and campers who are sick, or if someone in their household is sick, stay home. If your child becomes sick in class, we will call you immediately to pick him/her up.
"I felt really nervous because I’ve never really shared my writing with anyone besides my parents before and I also just get nervous when I have to do any type of public speaking. I feel happy now because they liked my story. I’m most proud of the descriptions I used to describe the characters and the setting; the people in my group said they could visualize the story because of the imagery."
Why Choose this Camp
“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”
Why do young writers choose this camp?
Why would parents or teachers recommend the camp for young writers?
What we offer
Campers will engage in a study of macro and micro aquaria in the UNCG wetlands and nature journaling around the UNCG campus. This will serve as inspiration for students to share the wonders of the natural world with others through the creation of virtual reality environments.
Writing and Robotics is an afternoon companion program for campers who are rising 3rd grade – 12th grade. This camp works in conjunction with the School of Education Young Writer’s Camp. In this robotics program, we will give students an opportunity to design and construct a working cardboard and craft robot based on the writing they create in the Young Writer’s Camp. The tool we will be using is called the Hummingbird Robotics kit. Students will also have access to 3D printers, laser engraver, sewing supplies, and other arts / craft materials.
Do you have a story to tell that doesn’t fit on the page? Through podcasting, we are able to tell stories using the power of our own voices, and then publish these stories for a wide audience. During our two weeks together, we will read widely, write creatively, and listen actively as we explore the connection between story and voice. We will become practiced in the art of active listening as we immerse ourselves in the ways podcasters use their voices to communicate to their audiences, and we will explore the influence of sound and voice on our own personal narratives. You will end the course with two finished podcasts and knowledge about how to publish your work for others to hear. Through this course, you will learn to engage with, reflect upon, and manipulate sound, developing proficiency in technologies for podcast production as well as confidence in your unique storytelling voice.
Spoken word poetry is a catalyst for young voices and the building of self esteem. Students will learn to create work that describe who they are and the things that make them unique. In addition to writing, students will also learn to present and memorize their work.
How do stories draw us in and make us want to keep reading? In this class we’ll discuss the things writers do to create a compelling story—like set up a potent conflict, develop complicated characters, and show us vivid details. Then we’ll learn how to bring these narrative elements to the page. The class will take you through the major steps of writing fiction: finding story ideas, drafting, revising, and editing. In the first week, we’ll do a range of fun activities and exercises to generate ideas. Then you’ll move on to drafting a story or novel chapter in any genre of fiction you like (realistic, fantasy, historical, science fiction, etc.). In the second week, you’ll finish your draft and practice revising and editing. You’ll have the opportunity to share your work in a friendly, supportive environment and to help your fellow writers take their work to the next stage. By the end of camp, you’ll have a polished work to publish on our website. And you’ll go home with some tools you can use to write your next great work of fiction.
Campers will explore simple circuitry as they build and create a puppet that can light up or make sounds. They’ll start with paper circuits and lil bits as they learn how electricity flows. They’ll learn simple sewing techniques and design and sew a puppet of their choosing.